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UNIVERSITY ANOTHER SCHOOLING HEADACHE

Students scrambling for housing

PREŠOV - As public schools in Trenčín, Košice and Nitra regions faced disconnection from electricity mains last month because of unpaid bills, a new crisis surfaced for the country's cash-poor university system in this eastern Slovak town of 95,000.
Half of all students that requested accommodation at eastern Slovakia's Prešov university were rejected this year. Students have blamed the shortage on a new school regulation which was intended to improve living standards in dormitories, but which, school officials admit, in practice exacerbated a housing shortage.
Until now, up to five people at the university dormitories have been permitted to live in rooms designed to house two to four students; with more bodies than beds, some students have slept on the floor, or three to a double bed.


Prešov university's vice-rector, Imrich Belejkanič, feared the student dormitory could become a "night harem".
photo: Chris Togneri

PREŠOV - As public schools in Trenčín, Košice and Nitra regions faced disconnection from electricity mains last month because of unpaid bills, a new crisis surfaced for the country's cash-poor university system in this eastern Slovak town of 95,000.

Half of all students that requested accommodation at eastern Slovakia's Prešov university were rejected this year. Students have blamed the shortage on a new school regulation which was intended to improve living standards in dormitories, but which, school officials admit, in practice exacerbated a housing shortage.

Until now, up to five people at the university dormitories have been permitted to live in rooms designed to house two to four students; with more bodies than beds, some students have slept on the floor, or three to a double bed.

But this practice was banned for the 2001-2002 school year when the school issued a new rule stating that the amount of people registered in each dormitory room could not exceed the number of beds. Prešov university can officially provide housing for 1,632 students, and with the new rule has had to reject over 2,000 of the 3,800 students that requested housing this year.

"I'm perplexed," said Sylvia (not her real name), 22, an English and German major in her fourth year at Prešov, who is currently living illegally in a dorm room with a friend. "I work hard and get good grades, but I can't get a place to sleep. I'm fed up, I've had this problem every year."

Imrich Belejkanič, Prešov university's vice-rector and head of the university housing committee, said he understood Sylvia's anger, but explained that the school was not legally required to provide housing for students. He added that the new rule had been necessary because too many students had been living in too small an area. "This is a dormitory," he said. "Not a night harem."

Meetings between the city mayor and university officials aimed at finding alternative housing have resulted in deals being struck with local high schools which have their own dorms, as well as bed-and-breakfasts and hotels, to offer the students accommodation at cheaper prices.

"We don't know yet how many openings we will find in such places, but it won't be many," Belejkanič said. The vice-rector added that the university had not completed a long-term plan to deal with the accommodation shortfall.

Bad situation

The new dorm capacity rule will not help with overcrowding, argue students, who say that the new regulation will only increase the amount of illegal tenants in the dorms.

"This year there will be many more people living here illegally," said Katarína Vargová, 22, a fourth-year personal management major from Michalovce.

"It's not so difficult to live in the dorms illegally. If you are often around the door-keepers think you're OK and don't check your student card [to verify if you are entitled to a dorm room]."

For Eduard Michalek, 23, an English major from Levoča who is entering his fifth year of accommodation in the Prešov dorms, a rise in illegal tenants at the dorms means that the days of cramped quarters are here to stay, at least until a solution can be found.

"The first year I studied here there were five of us in a four-bed room," he said. "It was really awful, it was so crowded. It was an extremely bad situation."

Stuck in the middle

Belejkanič said that while the university would like to help, there was simply not enough money to solve the problem by building new flats for them.

"The students want rooms for low prices, but the state is poor as well. It can't pay for construction of new dorms," he said. "So we're stuck in the middle. We would love to provide housing for all our students, but we don't have that kind of capacity. The reality of the situation is what it is."

To help the 2,000-plus students without accommodation, the university's Študentské servisné centrum (Student Services Centre) started a database of Prešov residents with flats or rooms to let. Since opening in November, 2000, however, they have received only 25 offers from local inhabitants.

"In Bratislava, local people are used to offering space to students," said Silvia Truchanová, head of the student services centre. "But we have just started asking the community for help, so the mentality is not there yet."

Students who are forced to seek alternative housing are often unable to pay for private rooms, Truchanová continued. In the dorms, a bed costs between 250 and 500 Slovak crowns per month ($5-$10), while private accommodation runs between 800 and 2,000 crowns. The average monthly Slovak salary at the end of 2000 was just over 12,000 crowns ($240).

As the school searches for answers and more housing, Vargová says that she and her fellow students will just have to get used to living in constant, and cramped, company.

"It's terrible, there's absolutely no privacy," she said, adding however that no student would choose personal comfort over aiding a friend in need. "You have to help each other. Even though the rooms are already crowded, students let others stay illegally because we want to help our friends."

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